So you made your first film X-TRACTS in 1975, with Desmond Horsfield. How did you come to make this film, from your background in painting?
I was painting these grid-like things, tending towards white, many layers, quite deep canvases, in a way that combined aspects of a gesture with a kind of pushing back of that gesture, burying the gesture. The gesture would be seeping out around edges. It was reductive, and moving more and more towards an absence of paint. I hadn’t planned on going to graduate school, but after I left Buffalo, I got a letter from Paul Sharits, who had become a friend and a mentor, and he was impressed by the school and said apply—so I ended up at the Hartford Art School.
For an MFA?
Yes, an MFA. Which was a really good thing! Because it made possible to teach. Because I really thought I was just going to be painting, when I left undergrad. So I enrolled at that school, and was expected to be “the painter” in a small group of grad students, in what was at the time considered a conceptual art school, along with Nova Scotia. I was very involved with avant-garde cinema, as a spectator, at Buffalo, and I was taking all the courses with filmmakers, and hanging out with them, because it was the early 70s and there was a kind of breaking down of hierarchy. I took courses with Hollis Frampton, and Brakhage and Peter Kubelka—in fact, that was one course that all three of them taught. And even in high school, I was watching experimental films: strangely the minister of a Unitarian church in Schenectady, New York was showing these films for the community on Sunday afternoon in the church. So I was seeped in this. And when I got to Hartford, I already knew that if I kept painting I was going to end up at this zero point, if I was honest to this trajectory that I established aesthetically. I had to empty the painting out completely. And also, it was a very private activity, and I was a very shy person.
So if you kept painting in the way you were, eventually you’d have to stop painting?
Yeah. And I started making films because it was the opposite, this funnel that would open on the world, that it had endless possibilities. That it required me to be more aggressive and outward-oriented was part of the appeal. Recording in the world meant there was endless potential.
So, when I was studying painting at Hartford, I met another graduate student, Desmond Horsfield, who was a British sculptor, and he was already making films. So we made X-TRACTS over the course of the first year. And I don’t remember what his interest was exactly, except, Let’s make a film. But we wanted to establish a structure for organizing the shots ahead of time. We weren’t in any way talking about a script, but we were talking about how the camera would relate to the subject. And the subject would be a person in the world. So we made this grid and worked out time intervals, and the way the camera or the subject could move in relationship to one another. We would have six shots in a row—I don’t know why six, that was fairly arbitrary—in which the same kind of movement would occur. And we wanted also to work with sound, so I had a high school journal of embarrassing writing, and I thought why don’t I destroy this, but I’ll read from it, and then we’ll cut that up and make another score or grid for handling sound. We started with longer shots at the beginning of the film, and shorter sounds, and then we moved in the opposite directions. And that was the structure. So then we thought, well, we’ll just shoot me around the house. Because Desmond was the one who knew how to shoot, and I was more excited about editing.
For me, it was a translation of what I did in painting, in that it was a combination of structure and excess flourishes that just happen. It was a combination of form and content. Partly because of this exposure that I’d had to so much good work from the early days of American avant-garde cinema, I just thought of it as another medium for practicing art. I wasn’t happy when it got separated from the art world—by these men, actually—into its own ghetto. It was separated from the art dialogue, and it was done deliberately.
Well, my perception of it was Mekas had a lot to do with it, but he’s not the only one. From what I saw, these people, and it was Brakhage in particular, could be quite exclusive about it. There was a sense that it was a new art form, and that it needed special consideration. It wasn’t something that people had gotten yet; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t think it would live well, was my understanding, in the already established art context. They wanted to create another place for it, so they started film centers, like Anthology. Which, it was my understanding, would grow into a museum of experimental cinema, separate from art museums. Also, this first generation, the founding sages, were—well, the egos were big, and they had a lot of support, and they really did like to talk about their work. So the formula set into place at these new film centers involved the filmmaker always being present to talk about the work. And that also meant that usually it would only happen on a single night. So all of this was set into place fairly quickly in the 70s, and as a model it dominated. And it really held things back.
So you think that initial separation from the art dialogue was because the egos would get buried or that it was better for the audiences’ understanding?
Well I think that they were honorable in their motives, though they did screw things up. They were honorable in the sense that they did pretty rightfully see themselves as carving out new territory—but that is kind of forgetting about surrealism and Dadaists, who didn’t have trouble moving through a number of different arenas of practice. And this cycling series of Essential Cinema that Mekas set up Anthology was a very big deal, and it was an interesting model, but he kept it so closed. And it was almost entirely men, Maya Daren might have been included. And it wasn’t added to.
And you think the followers of that avant-garde tradition have stuck to that formula, pretty much?
Oh yes, absolutely. I always felt that. It’s going to sound unfair, but I think it was a little more the case for the young male filmmakers than the young female filmmakers. Going into the 80s—which hasn’t been as well documented or written about as the 70s—a lot of women emerged as the leaders. That’s when I was getting established, and Su Friedrich, and Peggy Ahwesh and Abigail Child and others. The people who were doing more original work, not work that looked a lot like Brakhage—Brakhage in particular became like the style of experimental film—it was the women. And they were bringing in more subject matter as well as being very attentive to the form. And it was a strong period of feminism, as well, from the late 70s through the early 80s. But there was no bridge that crossed over from the Founding Fathers to this other group.
Well, except perhaps for X-TRACTS, which a Whitney curator called the “missing link” between those two worlds.
Well, very few people would have seen my film, so it wasn’t an influence, it was just in the air. But right. Form and content. Well, if we said we’d keep panning or zooming, for six times, what actually happened in front of the camera wasn’t robotic, it was life. A dog would show up, or the light would be a certain way. So it combined a sense of rhythm with something that was more poetic than the image, the feeling that you got overall listening to the quality of this voice, and the way the person was moving in this environment.
Your voice, and your image.
So it became somewhat of a portrait. And also somewhat of a portrait of a relationship, as well, between me and Desmond. That’s not very overt, but sometimes it’s said that it looks like a film about a girlfriend. I never liked that comment, but we were involved with each other at that point, we were living together.
“The girlfriend “ is always the worst description.
I never liked that. But there was a sense of a relationship. There are shots where the cinematographer (because we were thinking of ourselves in these very abstract, objectified terms) holds on to the subject and thrashes around. So some shots are very agitated, almost violent. And others romanticized: twirling, outside in the sun, shooting the shadows.
So was it kind of arbitrary to use you as the subject? Was that always the intention or did the structure come first?
The structure definitely came first. I was overwhelmed at the thought of making a film, and I was so involved in the aesthetics of painting, that the only way I could proceed was that I really made it very close to the logical approach I had to painting. And I guess I must have still been writing in this journal, because I wrote the sentence, “Out of necessity I become an instrument.” And that’s actually the only sentence you hear in film, and it’s arbitrary that it was that sentence that remained intact. Because we cut everything up in quarter-second to three-second parts. I wasn’t interested in qualities of it being personal, it was an experiment. And it was really related to experimental music I was interested in at the time, like Steve Reich.
Were there specific film models you were inspired by? More structuralist work?
Well it certainly did relate to Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass. There’s a male and female leaning against a wall, the lighting is awful, and they’re filmed having an argument. And it feels really like an argument—yelling at each other, and gesturing, and these horrible long pauses. And then Frampton made several copies of the same material and put them together in steps, so you always moved forward a little, but there was an overlap, a repetition of the previous action. I really loved that film. And people weren’t talking about it this way, but it had enormous emotional affect that was exaggerated by the use of repetition. But I think at the time people would only talk about it in more clinical terms, as a model of structuralist filmmaking.
But you responded to both that and the emotional content?
The form very much intensified the... If you had just looked at the footage of a couple of grad students having a fight, it would have read as badly lit documentary footage in a classroom. But he really transformed the raw material and made it into a masterwork of structuralist film by use of repetition and overlapping. And it worked out that, whether these people were really into method acting or were really fighting, it didn't matter, because it became something bigger than its origins. It was elevated by a strategy that both laid bare the process and materiality of the medium and yet let life seeped through-whether Frampton cared about that or not. It doesn't matter -his intentions-that's what's there. And while it's an exhausting film, it's not as exhausting as a lot of structuralist films because it has this excess, this bleeding into life. That was the next stage. That was feminism and the 80s. You can have it all. You can let the complexity of existence exist in a work of art-especially in a medium as broad as film-while still being perfectly exacting and conscious of aesthetics, of form and structure. It can all work together. The sages didn't get that.